Open Field System

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Simon Fairlie:

"Private ownership of land, and in particular absolute private ownership, is a modern idea, only a few hundred years old. "The idea that one man could possess all rights to one stretch of land to the exclusion of everybody else" was outside the comprehension of most tribespeople, or indeed of medieval peasants. The king, or the Lord of the Manor, might have owned an estate in one sense of the word, but the peasant enjoyed all sorts of so-called "usufructory" rights which enabled him, or her, to graze stock, cut wood or peat, draw water or grow crops, on various plots of land at specified times of year.

The open field system of farming, which dominated the flatter more arable central counties of England throughout the later medieval and into the modern period, is a classic common property system which can be seen in many parts of the world. The structure of the open fields system in Britain was influenced by the introduction of the caruca a large wheeled plough, developed by the Gauls, which was much more capable of dealing with heavy English clay soils than the lightweight Roman aratrum (Fr araire ). The caruca required a larger team of oxen to pull it —as many as eight on heavy soils — and was awkward to turn around, so very long strips were ideal. Most peasants could not afford a whole team of oxen, just one or two, so maintaining an ox team had to be a joint enterprise. Peasants would work strips of land, possibly proportionate to their investment in the ox team. The lands were farmed in either a two or three course rotation, with one year being fallow, so each peasant needed an equal number of strips in each section to maintain a constant crop year on year.

Furthermore, because the fields were grazed by the village herds when fallow, or after harvest, there was no possibility for the individual to change his style of farming: he had to do what the others were doing, when they did it, otherwise his crops would get grazed by everyone's animals. The livestock were also fed on hay from communal meadows (the distribution of hay was sometimes decided by an annual lottery for different portions of the field) and on communal pastures.

The open field system was fairly equitable, and from their analysis of the only remaining example of open field farming, at Laxton, Notts, the Orwins demonstrate that it was one where a lad with no capital or land to his name could gradually build up a larger holding in the communal land: "A man may have no more than an acre or two, but he gets the full extent of them laid out in long "lands" for ploughing, with no hedgerows to reduce the effective area, and to occupy him in unprofitable labour. No sort of inclosure of the same size can be conceived which would give him equivalent facilities. Moreover he has his common rights which entitle him to graze his stock all over the 'lands' and these have a value, the equivalent of which in pasture fields would cost far more than he could afford to pay."11

In short, the common field system, rather ingeniously, made economies of scale, including use of a whopping great plough team, potentially accessible to small scale farmers. The downside was a sacrifice of freedom (or "choice" as it is now styled), but that is in the nature of economies of scale when they are equitably distributed — and when they are inequitably distributed some people have no choice at all. The open field system probably offered more independence to the peasant than a New World latifundia, or a fully collectivized communist farm. One irony of these economies of scale is that when large-scale machinery arrived, farmers who had enclosed open fields had to start ripping out their hedges again.

It is hard to see how Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons has any bearing upon the rise and fall of this open field system. Far from collapsing as a result of increased population, the development of open field systems often occurred quite late in the Middle Ages, and may even have been a response to increasing population pressure, according to a paper by Joan Thirsk.12 When there was plenty of uncultivated land left to clear, people were able to stake out private plots of land without impinging too much upon others; when there was less land to go round, or when a single holding was divided amongst two or three heirs, there was pressure to divide arable land into strips and manage it semi-collectively.

The open fields were not restricted to any one kind of social structure or land tenure system. In England they evolved under Saxon rule and continued through the era of Norman serfdom. After the Black Death serfdom gave way to customary land tenure known as copyhold and as the moneyeconomy advanced this in turn gave way to leasehold. But none of these changes appeared to diminish the effectiveness of the open field system. On the other hand, in Celtic areas, and in other peripheral regions that were hilly or wooded, open fields were much less widespread, and enclosure of private fields occurred earlier (and probably more equitably) than it did in the central arable counties.

However, open fields were by no means restricted to England. Being a natural and reasonably equitable expression of a certain level of technology, the system was and still is found in many regions around the world. According to one French historian, "it must be emphasised that in France, open fields were the agricultural system of the most modernised regions, those which Quesnay cites as regions of 'high farming'."13 There are reports of similar systems of open field farming all over the world, for example in Anatolia, Turkey in the 1950s; and in Tigray, Ethiopia where the system is still widespread. In one area, in Tigray, Irob, "to avoid profiteering by ox owners of oxenless landowners, ox owners are obliged to first prepare the oxenless landowners' land and then his own. The oxenless landowners in return assist by supplying feed for the animals they use to plough the land."

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